Further Education Colleges

– in the Scottish Parliament on 3rd February 2011.

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Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S3M-7436, in the name of Andrew Welsh, on Scotland’s further education colleges. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament congratulates the staff and students of Angus College on what it considers another successful year in providing high-quality training and resources in its continuing exceptional contribution to building Scotland’s skills base for the future and also acknowledges the wider role of Scotland’s further education colleges in upskilling and retraining across the range of professional and practical skills considered essential in overcoming the challenges of the current economic situation.

Photo of Andrew Welsh Andrew Welsh Scottish National Party

I declare an interest as a former business studies and public administration lecturer at Dundee College and senior lecturer at Angus College.

I pay due tribute to Scotland’s further education colleges, which are the engine for skills in Scotland—they work locally with people, communities and businesses to improve knowledge, employability and productivity. Their strength lies in their autonomy and flexibility, which allows them, at their best, to react locally, regionally and nationally to utilise effectively and efficiently their 22,000 staff members for the benefit of the Scottish economy. Their range of activity is impressive. In 2008-09, there were 483,472 student enrolments in further education colleges in Scotland. Flexible part-time study was provided for 82 per cent of students and 29 per cent of teaching was delivered to students from Scotland’s most deprived postcode areas. A total of 5,358 international students came from more than 100 countries.

Because 48 per cent of students are over 25 years old and 55 per cent are women, colleges are both reactive to student demand in the current recession and predictors of the future economy and the resultant labour market. For example, Angus College is developing the infrastructure, staff, skills and programmes for education and training to deliver the workforce that is essential for the renewables industry when it comes on stream over the next five to 10 years, as well as for those who are retraining for or entering the labour market.

Last year, in addition to achieving nationally and internationally recognised qualifications, progressing to university degrees, advancing in their chosen careers and improving employability, students from Angus College gave back value to their local and international communities during their studies. Angus College staff and students raised more than £16,000, helping charities such as Cancer Research, the Haiti earthquake appeal, the Children’s Hospice Association Scotland and their own Angus College student crisis care fund. More than 100 students received student volunteering awards in recognition of their service to the community—three of them at the exceptional gold level.

Angus College has links with Don Bosco Technical College, which is in one of the poorest parts of Malawi. Social science, hairdressing and care students contributed to the building of a much-needed girl’s hostel project. One student, James McIntosh, on construction and access to uniformed services courses, sold all his personal possessions to raise the money to go to India for three months to work with Raleigh International to build water wells and solar elephant-damage prevention fencing.

In the 2009-10 academic year, a record number of students attended Angus College. There were more than 1,650 full-time students—nearly 6 per cent up on the previous year. Thereby, the college absorbed many of the young people in our community who have been affected by the economic recession and achieved record levels of student activity—above the level that was contracted with the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council. That demonstrates the college’s commitment to the Angus community. Indeed, if the college did not fund those places from its own resources, 2,400 students in Angus would have been denied a college opportunity.

Angus College students’ results are, in general, 13 per cent above national average levels. In some cases, such as care and child care, they are 25 per cent above the national average.

In the 2009-10 session, Angus College staff and students won 39 prestigious national and local awards—an unprecedented total for a college of its size. The quality of teaching and courses can be seen in the Scotland-wide awards for best customer service, best professional development, best individual contribution to marketing, best relationship building and best development in e-learning and e-assessment. Indeed, a record number of new initiatives came to fruition. For example, that session produced the first graduates from the BA management degree—delivered part-time via new broadcast technology in partnership with Robert Gordon University—and there are now two more cohorts of 37 students undertaking that degree across Angus.

Members of staff in disciplines ranging from welding through hairdressing to teaching skills visited Malawi to help with the development of its embryonic college sector, which is vital for that country’s future development. Some 30 staff and 28 students have benefited from opportunities to share best practice and gain work placements across no fewer than 16 European nations.

With the growing success of its revolutionary design and drafting qualification for key employers in the North Sea oil and gas industry, Angus College is now the second-biggest provider of engineering modern apprenticeships in the east of Scotland.

Angus College students lead the way in Scotland in volunteering and effective learner engagement. I could go on—there is much, much more.

My bias towards further education colleges is based on practical experience of what can be achieved with top-quality management and an enthusiastic, highly motivated, professional teaching staff. They are at the heart of Scotland’s further education system. As a part of Scotland’s overall education system, our further education colleges are a potential springboard in providing Scotland’s economy with the practical range of skills and expertise that are required and indeed essential both for Scotland’s successful emergence from the recession and to allow us to compete and create our nation’s 21st century prosperity.

I pay tribute to Angus College’s principal, John Burt, and depute principal, Jackie Howie, as well as the college’s teaching staff and students. I wish them and all colleges throughout Scotland all continuing success in the future. They have done our students proud and they are an essential part of helping us to take Scotland into prosperity during the 21st century. In all our areas, we can be proud of what the colleges have done.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

We move to the open debate. As a large number of members wish to speak, I ask that speeches be kept to four minutes.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

I congratulate our colleague on securing this evening’s debate. He made some important points about the role of the further education sector, to which he is clearly very committed, and I congratulate him on his speech.

I am also very proud of the FE sector. In particular, I want to highlight Cardonald College in my constituency, which has benefited from significant capital funding and has been magnificently refurbished. It is an excellent college and one that people enjoy, and it plays a critical role in the local economy, as well as everything else it does. Critically, it supports young people, but it is creative in providing opportunities for a wide range of people in my constituency and far beyond. Significantly and importantly, it provides second chances. If people have more challenges in their lives, they are less likely to have succeeded the first time round, at school, so the FE sector is crucial for giving people a second opportunity or, perhaps, a third one. We must not understate or underestimate the significance of that for youngsters who are born into difficult circumstances. They are often given the opportunity through the FE sector to achieve their potential and to move forward.

Colleges are also important—again, Cardonald College has been excellent in this respect—because they reach out in communities to people who are hostile to formal education. The fact that they provide classes in the community has built confidence in the education sector, and we have some great examples of people benefiting from that. People who have previously been excluded from education because of their circumstances and people who have been reluctant to learn have discovered the joy of learning at a different stage of their lives.

I also want to reiterate—this comment reflects some of what has already been said—that further education is not a second-best choice. Cardonald College is a good example of where the FE sector is leading the way and providing cutting-edge opportunities for learning—particularly in new technologies, whether they be in broadcasting or whatever—and it is leading the world in some circumstances. That ought to be recognised, too.

Although the debate is a celebration—I do not deny the importance of celebrating—it is because of the issues that Andrew Welsh highlighted, particularly around the importance of colleges to deprived communities, that I want to mention the challenges that the sector is facing. Members will be aware of the National Union of Students Scotland’s campaign on bursaries, and I want to make just a couple of points about the importance of not endangering the sector through some of the decisions that have been made. We all get campaign letters on a wide range of issues, but I cannot overemphasise the degree to which the NUS campaign has been brought to my e-mail box in a way that no other campaign has. That reflects where the bursary cut is going to hit and the nature of the constituency that I represent. I hope that the minister will reflect again on the decision.

We know that the number of people who are not in education, employment or training rose in the last period. We also know that £3 million of the more choices, more chances money has been cut from the sector, and that that will have a significant effect. Equally, the ending of some elements of the education maintenance allowance by the Scottish National Party has meant that £6 million has come out of support for poor families in our communities.

Photo of Andrew Welsh Andrew Welsh Scottish National Party

As someone who was born in Cardonald and saw Cardonald College being built, I share the member’s admiration for the work that it has done. However, I point out that Angus College has overcome a 6 per cent cut, which shows what can be achieved through the ability and talents of those run who the colleges.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

I fear that we might be in danger of leaving disadvantaged students even more disadvantaged. My challenge to the minister is to be alive to the consequences for particular equality groups of any spending choices that we make. Although the Tory Government has chosen not to enact the socioeconomic duty in relation to equalities, we should ask ourselves whether any spending choice that disproportionately affects women and disproportionately impacts on those with families, those who have struggled the most to get to college or those who have in their earlier lives been least supported in developing an education, is actually the right one. I urge the minister to examine this particular choice, to ask herself whether the decision to cut bursaries disproportionately impacts on youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds and, if so, to think again about implementing it. My mailbag suggests that that is exactly what is happening. After all, given that we all share an interest in the sector, we will all want to ensure that we are not excluding youngsters.

Notwithstanding that, I congratulate Andrew Welsh on making very important positive points about colleges, which are surviving through tough times.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

First, I congratulate, in the conventional way, Andrew Welsh on securing this debate. Of course, my congratulations are tinged with sadness, because there is every chance that this is the last motion that will be debated in Andrew Welsh’s name in a distinguished parliamentary career that extends back more than 37 years. Another opportunity might come along, but I suspect not. Presiding Officer, I must also apologise to you, the minister and colleagues as I will be leaving the debate early. I have been in the chamber almost all day and have one or two other things to do.

As it is the Chinese new year, it is particularly appropriate that the debate centres on Angus College, which has been developing links with Yantai Vocational College in China. Moreover, I know that the member sponsoring the debate has great interests in China and, indeed, is one of the few members who can speak some sensible words in Chinese. That link reflects enthusiastic work that has been carried out by organisations right across Angus and illustrates that successful colleges not only have deep roots in their own communities, but will work with others. I am sure that such a relationship, with the college at its centre, will benefit the local area.

Of course, when the economy is in a less-than-ideal condition, it becomes ever more important that we have a range of opportunities to allow people to upgrade and change their skill sets. Indeed, many people go to college not because it is second best—a phrase that Johann Lamont did not want us to use and which I certainly do not wish to—but because it often provides a second chance to acquire the skills that they require. It is also a good starting point that allows people to take things to whatever level they are capable of reaching. A sufficient and capable further education sector is a central part of the Government’s programme.

Offshore energy is a very important industry in Angus and, indeed, in my constituency, where Banff and Buchan College has a long engineering tradition, thanks to its proximity to the offshore industries that will continue to be important. Now that Peterhead has been designated as a key hub of Scotland’s offshore renewables industry, the local college in my constituency will play an important role in ensuring that we have the necessary skills to support the economic benefits that will come from that industry.

Colleges play an important role in allowing people to retrain or to gain more skills throughout their lives and are, of course, a vital destination for many school leavers: last year, 27 per cent of school leavers attended FE colleges.

There are, of course, specific challenges in rural or relatively sparsely populated areas. I think that we all welcome the announcement that was made yesterday that the University of the Highlands and Islands has finally become a university formally. It reflects the specific needs of the very different area within which it operates. Exactly the same point can often be made about our colleges.

In my previous role, I was engaged with Montrose harbour, which is an important place where people from Angus College may go. It is slightly amusing that Montrose was, of course, the base of an important American engineering company called Stewart & Stevenson.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

I am not quite sure what that had to do with the motion, but never mind.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

I warmly welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate, which has been secured by Andrew Welsh. Apart from the fact that we are celebrating Angus College and all our other colleges, the debate is timely for the reasons that Johann Lamont set out. There are on-going deliberations on how we should fund higher and further education in Scotland and, more broadly, on how we should prepare our young people for the world of work. That has been a pertinent issue this week, given some reports from the business community.

Colleges in Scotland have proven themselves to be outstanding, and are an important part of the Scottish education landscape. They are also fundamental to our economic success as a nation. They offer a huge range of qualifications, from access courses at Scottish credit and qualifications framework level 3 right up to PhDs at level 12. Their recent strength has lain in their adaptability to national and economic circumstances and in their flexibility in responding to different regional demands. That is a factor that is aided in no small part by the enhanced autonomy that they have enjoyed since a Conservative Government passed the Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Act 1992. Like universities, Scotland’s colleges are rightly protective of their autonomy. The enhancement of that autonomy will ensure the continued success of the sector.

In its most recent briefing, Scotland’s Colleges stated:

“The success of the college sector is fundamentally dependent on local autonomy and the flexibility and responsiveness that this creates.”

Andrew Welsh gave us clear evidence of that in his speech.

I am sure that it will come as no surprise to members that the Conservatives want to encourage greater scope for colleges to work with local schools, universities and businesses to enhance their economic and social contribution and to open up new opportunities to students through better integrated learner pathways. On working with schools, it would be helpful to have a more clearly defined two-route system from 14 years onwards, and to put much more emphasis on the skills that are required in the world of work, whether that is on awareness of the crucial need to turn up for work on time, to be appropriately dressed in a professional environment, or to know how to make calls and write letters to clients or customers. Senior businesses raised that important point just this week.

If we are serious about opening up new academic and vocational routes to pupils, it is important and logical that colleges, as the largest providers of skills for new entrants and existing employees in the Scottish workforce, play a foremost role. From an academic perspective, I agree entirely with the suggestion from Scotland’s Colleges that there could be simplification of some academic qualifications, but nonetheless greater rigour in some ways for members of the student population in Scotland’s colleges who are undertaking considerable higher education courses.

On collaboration with universities, there is a lot of good will from both the college sector and the universities and there is a lot of scope to build upon the excellent collaborative work that has taken place. Andrew Welsh referred to that and gave examples, and I know that my colleague Alex Johnstone will expand on the matter.

I have put it on public record many times that there is great scope in Scotland to adopt the principle of greater flexibility in the exam system. That can help to facilitate benefits for the education of more of our young people and allow us greater flexibility in how we fund it. It is clear that that will be important.

Our time is short. I congratulate Andrew Welsh not only on his long service, but on securing an important debate in which I am happy to have participated.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

I thank Andrew Welsh for securing the debate. Like Stewart Stevenson and Elizabeth Smith, I pay tribute to him for his great service to the Parliament and to his colleagues. He has always been a tremendous support to his colleagues in the work that he has done on the corporate body and as the Finance Committee’s convener. I add my congratulations to Angus College’s staff and students. Not for the first time, Andrew Welsh has praised them eloquently.

One good aspect of speaking in members’ business debates is that we can highlight the work that is done in our constituencies. I will be no different. The fantastic work that is done in Angus College and elsewhere is echoed in my area—not quite in my constituency, but on the edge of my constituency. Telford College shifted from my constituency to a new development in Malcolm Chisholm’s constituency, but I will not hold that against him. The college, which is fantastic, is one of the 20 colleges that have been built or rebuilt since 1990. A great feature of colleges in Scotland is that we have some fantastic estate, because much of the capital budget in the past few years has gone into our colleges. People are benefiting from that.

Andrew Welsh was right to highlight the flexibility and diversity of Scotland’s colleges and their central role in their communities. As we emerge from recession, we will need an able and skilled workforce that is ready for the new industries and challenges of the future. A number of us are worried by comments such as that in the 2010 report of the United Kingdom Commission for Employment and Skills that

“Current employment and skills systems in Scotland are neither fully integrated and consistent, nor always sufficiently aligned to labour market needs.”

We can see that work to try to align systems to labour market needs has been done in colleges. If we are moving—as we must—to a simplified system to deliver skills, colleges should be central to that, because they deliver good value. For every pound that is invested in them, we get back £3.20 in economic benefits.

Colleges’ contribution to helping the country to tackle the worst effects of recession cannot be overestimated. Their work in relation to partnership action for continuing employment and in our communities to deal with people who have lost their jobs has been phenomenal. There is almost a renaissance in people’s appreciation of our colleges’ role, because colleges have shown flexibility, adaptability and the ability to deal with matters in short periods by helping people to upskill and to take a second or third chance as a result, as Johann Lamont said.

Upskilling, workplace training for graduates who have little experience in industry and completely retraining individuals to enter new vocations are all being undertaken across Scotland in colleges that offer flexible courses and ways of study that focus on the individual and reflect local needs. Only yesterday, we celebrated the achievement of university status for the University of the Highlands and Islands, which is based very much in the college sector.

Times are tough. The college sector is not immune from job losses and people in the sector are under threat now.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

Last year, we fought in our budget negotiations to secure additional college places. In those negotiations this year, we hope to obtain a better deal for colleges. I sincerely hope that we will do that, because they certainly deserve it. Colleges deserve our thanks and appreciation today.

Photo of Claire Baker Claire Baker Labour

I congratulate Andrew Welsh on securing the debate. I know how much members value their local colleges, and his enthusiasm for his local college is clear. On Labour’s behalf, I recognise his contribution to the Scottish Parliament. When I was a member of the Audit Committee as a new MSP, I always found him to be a fair and insightful colleague. I wish him the best in his life after the Scottish Parliament.

I am happy to join Andrew Welsh in recognising the contribution that Angus College’s staff and students make to the local economy and the part that they play in progressing Scotland’s economy.

Angus College faces particular challenges as a rural college. The distribution formula has not always benefited rural colleges, and I welcome the moves to address that issue. Although levels of deprivation and unemployment are not as high in rural areas as they are in the cities, there can be, as Andrew Welsh highlighted, significant concentrations of deprivation. We need to ensure that, regardless of where they live, there are opportunities throughout Scotland for young people and adults who are looking to retrain or upskill. For many young people and adult returners to education, colleges play a vital role in providing access to those opportunities in a friendly and less intimidating environment. Location is also important in that regard.

Our colleges are key to Scotland’s economic recovery. Their flexibility, responsiveness, strong links with business, knowledge of their local labour market and ability to respond all add up to a sector that is at the centre of a modern Scotland.

In my region, Adam Smith College is at the forefront of modern industry. Once known for heavy industry, particularly mining, Fife has had to work hard to reinvent itself. Fife’s colleges have been instrumental in ensuring that villages and towns that were depressed by high unemployment and its social consequences retain access to opportunities. Fife’s colleges do much more than that. They work actively with agencies to create opportunities. For example, Adam Smith College is a key partner in the hydrogen office, which opened recently in Methil.

Over the years, Adam Smith College has actively encouraged people to come to college through a network of local facilities. Johann Lamont stressed the importance to people of having access on their doorstep. The minister recently opened a new facility in Leven that is part of the Adam Smith College campus.

Colleges are at the forefront of new technologies. The newly opened future skills centre at Adam Smith College’s Stenton campus in Glenrothes offers state-of-the-art facilities with a wide range of courses in engineering, construction, renewables and science. Fife can be proud of those facilities, which point towards our economic future.

Since devolution, the Scottish Parliament has invested in our colleges. There has been significant investment in capital projects, resulting in excellent facilities across Scotland. Of course, there is more that we could do, but we have a well-equipped sector. As we all know, we face significant challenges in ensuring that we maintain standards so that colleges can continue to deliver quality education at a time of financial constraint. The best way out of a recession is to invest in the workforce, including by ensuring that people have access to training and skills. In that way, Scotland can emerge stronger and more competitive.

We all know the challenges that we face. This afternoon’s education and lifelong learning questions were dominated by concerns about college places, student support and bursaries, funding and opportunities for young people. Although the minister will highlight Scottish Government investment, we know that for a few years now colleges have been supplementing bursaries from their own reserves. As Andrew Welsh highlighted, Angus College has shown its commitment by funding 2,400 students.

Colleges go above and beyond our expectations of them. My fear is that the piece of elastic can be stretched only so far. There are enormous pressures on the college sector. The news of the substantial redundancies at James Watt College is concerning, and the college is unlikely to be alone in pursuing that option. Although the number of places may be maintained, we have to question the ability of colleges to continue to provide a high-quality experience for students once they have fewer staff. The National Union of Students Scotland is campaigning in advance of the budget debate for more investment in bursaries.

Those are the big challenges that we all have to face. Colleges are vital to our economic future and, like their students, they must have the resources that they need to make their contribution.

Photo of Linda Fabiani Linda Fabiani Scottish National Party

Like other members, I am pleased to speak in the debate, not only because of the subject, which is so very worth while, but because—as others have said—this is Andrew Welsh’s last stand. Tonight marks his final members’ business debate in what has been a long career. It has all been said already, so it is difficult to add anything other than to say on a personal note that I will miss him very much. In case you feel put out, Deputy Presiding Officer, I will miss you, too.

What really jumped out of the motion for me was what it said about the success of Angus College—and other colleges, of course—

“in providing high-quality training and resources” and in making an

“exceptional contribution to building Scotland’s skills base for the future.”

I will speak about South Lanarkshire College in East Kilbride. As members may be aware, the college has been mentioned many times in the chamber. The building of the Aurora house, an eco-house that is a model for the future and a great training ground, has been highlighted, as has the college’s success in the skillbuild competition in 2009, in which its students were very successful in obtaining medals. Those successes are a great tribute to the innovative thinking of the college’s board, staff and students, who are always willing to look at new ways forward and at what is best for the students.

That is reflected in the report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education that the college received this week. I am not seeking any one-upmanship—or one-upwomanship—today; however, for the second time in four years, South Lanarkshire College has been deemed to be the best college in Scotland. The inspectorate said that it had “full confidence” in all aspects of the college. The report is super and provides great building blocks for the future. It refers to “excellent” practice and “sector leading and innovative practice”, and contains not one main point for action. That shows the level of excellence that can be reached with the full commitment of everyone who is involved.

I note some of strengths on which HMIE reported. The report states:

“Attainment rates for FE level programmes ... are consistently very high ... and well above sector average values.”

It makes the extremely important point that

“Sustainability is embedded in much of the college’s provision.”

It also notes:

“The college prepares learners very well for employment and further study.”

Both Elizabeth Smith and Margaret Smith picked up that issue in their speeches. These days it is extremely important that we prepare people for the workplace. Colleges all over Scotland have taken that on board and are doing it very well.

Time runs out quickly when there is so much to say. Andrew Welsh spoke about the community aspects of our colleges. HMIE said that, in South Lanarkshire College,

“learners enhance their employability and citizenship skills by participating in a range of relevant activities within the college and the local community.”

I mention in that regard the college’s involvement in the East Kilbride cross out child poverty campaign, which is extremely important.

I leave the last word to Katie McCall, the president of South Lanarkshire College’s student association, who said what HMIE already recognises—that

“our college is a fantastic place to study!”

That is a great tribute to everyone who is involved.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

I am prepared to accept a motion without notice to extend the time for debate by up to 10 minutes in order to complete business.

Motion moved,

That, under Rule 8.14.3, the debate be extended by up to 10 minutes.—[Andrew Welsh.]

Motion agreed to.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

It would be remiss of me not to take this opportunity to say some nice things about Angus College. The college has come a long way since the days when it would have described itself as a technical college and now offers a wide range of qualifications, with a diverse prospectus. It truly is Angus College, with learning centres in Brechin, Forfar, Montrose and Kirriemuir, as well as the headquarters in Arbroath. That makes it easier for students in a largely rural, low-income area to learn.

The local economy benefits hugely from the skills that are provided in the college environment. I pay particular tribute to the training restaurant, Restaurant 56, which provides hands-on training for those who would like to enter the hospitality industry, which is so important to the local economy. Another community benefit is the Inspire hair and beauty salon, where local men and women allow students to experiment on them. That is a terrible thing to say—no one has any problems with it.

The college also engages closely with the community and has been involved in raising money for charity in a number of ways. A few years ago, representatives of the college came to the Parliament as my guests in an attempt to collect as many pairs of shoes as possible from members of the Parliament. Their objective was to create the longest line of shoes that had ever been made; I believe that they succeeded in doing that. I donated a few pairs of shoes. My wife engaged enthusiastically in the project; in fact, at one point, she was down to her last 35 pairs.

Angus College enjoys an excellent relationship with many organisations in Angus, especially Angus Council, where students have the opportunity to experience on-the-job training. Like many community colleges in Scotland, it plays a vital role in providing qualifications and training, including evening classes, that fit in with students’ lives, jobs and family commitments.

However, not all on the horizon is rosy. It has been mentioned that a campaign is taking place on bursaries. I have had approximately 600 e-mails from people in the north-east on the subject and it is notable that Angus College students are well represented among those correspondents. A solution to that problem will need to be found.

One way in which Angus College has offered help to the community is by giving people a second chance to gain increasingly important qualifications. Many mature students choose to attend college to brush up their skills or pursue an entirely new career path. That second chance is extremely important for some, particularly the prisoners at Noranside open prison, who have enjoyed a good working relationship with the community college and have taken advantage of the opportunities that it provides. However, the threat that hangs over the prison means that that link may be about to come to an end.

Finally, I will do as many members have done and pay tribute to Andrew Welsh. As many members will know, I have stood against him in the Angus constituency at the past two Scottish Parliament elections. I finished second but, in all honesty, I was some distance behind the incumbent. After he beat me last time, I remember being interviewed by a journalist from Radio Tay, who stuck a microphone under my nose and said, “Well, that’s twice he’s gubbed you. What are you going to do now?” Searching for something to say, I said that I was going to change tack and attempt to outlive him. I take this opportunity to say to Andrew that I wish to go on competing with him at that level for many years to come.

Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour

I congratulate Andrew Welsh on securing the debate and, like others, wish him all the best for the future. I would also like to associate myself with the motion, which acknowledges the role of Scotland’s FE colleges in providing important skills and training across a wide range of professional and practical areas.

Scotland’s colleges play a central role in delivering high-quality skills to help to grow and shape new industries. They also place the learner at the heart of the education that is delivered.

By allowing greater flexibility and part-time learning, Scotland’s FE institutions also have an important part to play in assisting mothers who wish to re-enter education or the workplace, because they can help them to gain new qualifications and increase their confidence levels. On-site crèches and nurseries are vital in supporting them.

As other members have said, Parliament should recognise the major social contribution that colleges make in encouraging people back into education by accepting learners at all levels and helping them to develop their full potential.

I commend Coatbridge College in my constituency for the important contribution that it makes to the prospects of local people. Coatbridge College is Scotland’s oldest college; it celebrated its 145th anniversary last year and has more than 250 members of staff and about 7,000 students. I was proud to attend its recent graduation ceremony in the prestigious Glasgow royal concert hall, at which it also celebrated the anniversary. At the ceremony, the new graduates were presented with their qualifications by the principal, John Doyle, in front of an audience of about 1,200 people. That demonstrated the strength of support for the college.

Coatbridge College has adapted well over the years to meet the needs of the people of the town and the surrounding areas. At the time of the decline of heavy industry under the Tories, the college was forced to change its traditional focus on industrial courses, so work began in the 1980s to extend the original college building to create computing suites, hairdressing and beauty salons, a refectory, a theatre and sports facilities.

In the past few years, the college has again begun a large redevelopment, after it was awarded funding by the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council to address accessibility. There is a new entrance and a main reception area will lead to an integrated student services provision, a new learner resource centre, a coffee shop and a new refectory. In addition, there will be lift and stair access to all floors throughout the college, which will allow all users to get to all areas of the campus, which is very important. I am delighted that the first phase of the building work is expected to be completed on time and on budget. I was pleased to support the college in its efforts to gain the funding to redevelop and I look forward to seeing the completed campus and the benefits that it will bring to my constituency.

The motion refers to the current economic climate. It is essential that we continue to invest in education so that we do not repeat the mistakes of the 1980s, when a generation of young people were unable to find work or training. The job prospects that are provided by colleges such as Coatbridge are crucial to the local economy and to the lives and future prospects of our young people. A key aspect of the second phase of the redevelopment of Coatbridge College will be new facilities such as a first-class conference area, which will support economic development in North Lanarkshire.

On that theme, and to reiterate a point that other members have made, the proposed budget for this year seeks to cut the FE settlement, which will present challenges to the sector, a major one of which will be on student support. The NUS has found that almost two thirds of students last year found bursaries to be inadequate. Its president, Liam Burns, said:

“College bursaries were already failing, but with this cut we could risk a meltdown in the system.”

In recognising the importance of our FE colleges to the economy, we must agree that their funding should reflect that importance. I hope that members from all parties can agree on the need for continued investment in our FE institutions. Once again, I congratulate Andrew Welsh on the debate.

Photo of Angela Constance Angela Constance Scottish National Party

I, too, congratulate Andrew Welsh on securing the debate. I say with pleasure that the Government certainly endorses the motion. I am glad that members from across the political spectrum have showcased colleges in their constituencies, as we have much to celebrate.

It is important to reflect on Mr Welsh’s opening remarks when he spoke of Angus College punching well above its weight. The college is rightly renowned for the high quality of learning opportunities that it delivers to the people of Angus. It is indeed a sector-leading institution and one of which many people in Angus, including Andrew Welsh, are justifiably proud. It is a successful and well-run college and, as has been said, an award-winning one. Under John Burt’s leadership, the college gained not one, but two gold prizes at the recent college award ceremony. One feature that interested me is that Angus has the highest percentage of school leavers going into further education. As Alex Johnstone and Johann Lamont reflected, colleges give a second chance in learning, but they are most certainly not the second-best option.

We all know that there will be significant challenges ahead for all our colleges. As well as celebrating our successes, members are right to speak of the challenges that institutions in their constituencies and across the sector face. Next year, Angus Council will have to bear its share of the consequences of the reduction by Westminster of £1.3 billion in Scotland’s block grant, as will other councils. I believe that that budget reduction is too much, too soon, and that it will bring unnecessary pain and challenge to many institutions and put our economic recovery in jeopardy.

Notwithstanding that, the Government has protected student support at record levels. In 2009-10, £79 million was invested in student support, which was a record level, and the figure for 2010-11 is £84 million, which is again a record level. The draft budget seeks to protect that. However, the NUS campaign is compelling. Among the quotations on the NUS website, one student says:

“Having a bursary while I was a ... National Qualification ... student was the difference between eating and not eating.”

We cannot help but be affected by that. Another student says:

“When I decided to go to college, it was for a couple of reasons. One was to better myself and the other was so that I could get a job that paid higher than minimum wage so that as a single mother I could provide for my children better than I was at that time.”

That shows the life-changing potential of Scotland’s colleges.

Elaine Smith talked about the importance of the college sector to young women and young mothers.

As we know, budget discussions are on-going. The Government is a listening Government and we all await the result of the budget negotiations. Of course, the budget is finite. We do not have unlimited resources and, as John Swinney reminds us all, the budget ultimately has to be balanced.

A number of interesting points were made in the debate. For example, we heard that 55 per cent of college students are women. Although the rate of youth unemployment is lower in Scotland than it is in the UK, we cannot fail to be concerned about the rising number of unemployed young women. During the past year there has been a 12 per cent increase in the number of unemployed young women. We must consider the drivers for youth unemployment. The overarching point about the need for greater integration of employability and skills was well made by Margaret Smith and must be pursued.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

Will the minister commit to asking officials to scrutinise the budget choices that have been made, precisely because, as she said, there are socioeconomic and gender aspects to the issue? We must ensure that we are not making cuts without thinking about the disproportionate consequences for some of the most disadvantaged people in our communities.

Photo of Angela Constance Angela Constance Scottish National Party

I reassure the member that such scrutiny is currently being undertaken in some detail.

Our colleges have a track record of rising to challenges, which is why we asked them to refocus their activity so that the current volume of core activity can be maintained next year. I am pleased to say that colleges agreed to that undertaking, which is no small feat, and I commend colleges for their commitment. The approach will provide the space for us to take a critical and robust look at how colleges can continue to deliver for learners this year and next year, as we must do. Many members, not least Elizabeth Smith, talked about the need for more collaborative working.

We all know that the reduction of the block grant by £1.3 billion will have consequences. Colleges have huge ambition to do more of what they already do excellently, and some of that ambition might be frustrated. I regret the prospect of job losses and redundancies, as I said.

Andrew Welsh said that Scotland’s colleges are “the engine for skills” at home and abroad. He was right to say that colleges have their finger firmly on the economic pulse. The Government has a strong track record of listening to what colleges tell us and acting on what we have heard, including by providing extra resources to address specific pressures.

I conclude by paying tribute to Mr Welsh. He has had a long and distinguished career as a parliamentarian. He has been a first-class representative of and advocate for Angus, and he is a great exemplar of what every constituency member should aspire to. He said that in Scotland we have colleges and students that we can be proud of. In Andrew Welsh we also have much to be proud of.

Meeting closed at 17:54.